Two hundred delegates of the 24,000-strong Irish Nurses Organisation (INO) nurse’s union vote unanimously on October 27, 1998 to reactivate industrial action if their claims are not met. The delegates gather at the Burlington Hotel in Dublin.
The more difficult task is to modify the pay demands made by the State’s 2,500 ward sisters. The INO executive calls for senior ward sisters to receive salaries of £31,000 a year, or £6,400 more than the current maximum. However, one of the INO branch amendments calls for a new maximum of £35,000, the same salary as directors of nursing in major hospitals.
The conference is called to report on progress to date in talks, spell out objectives and obtain a mandate for strike action if negotiations break down. There is little progress to report. Talks at the Labour Relations Commission the previous week failed to resolve claims on extra long-service increments for staff nurses, or better rates of pay for ward sisters. Both issues are now referred to the Labour Court, which is already dealing with allowances for extra professional qualifications held by nurses.
The Labour Court is due to hear submissions from the INO, other nursing unions and health service managers on the qualifications issue the following day. About half of the State’s staff nurses have such qualifications, worth £347 a year. The union wants them re-rated at 10% of basic salary, worth up to £2,200 a year for staff nurses at the top of the scale. Despite the negotiating gap, this issue is less difficult to resolve than the others, because it is less likely to lead to follow-on claims from other public service unions.
The union is looking for new long-service increments at the top of the current 15-year scale, which will add 18% to basic salary. As 80% of nurses never graduate to ward sister level, the INO argues that a nurse with 22 years’ service should be earning £25,000.
It is also seeking a minimum 10% pay differential between the maximum amount staff nurses can earn and the pay for the new Clinical Nurse Managers I, recommended by the Nursing Commission. The differential for Clinical Nurse Managers II should be 15% and that for Clinical Nurse Managers III should be 25%.
The union argues that any smaller differentials will make it unattractive for staff nurses to accept promotion and forgo the opportunity for unsocial hours premiums. Recent offers from the management on overtime pay could make promotion even less attractive.
A week earlier the nursing unions defer a nationwide overtime ban only after management agrees to introduce a national framework for overtime payments. Ominously, the concession comes after an overtime ban was introduced in Cork. For the first time nurses nationwide will be paid time-and-a-half, or double time for overtime.
But the unions also demand permanent part-time nursing posts be introduced, as a means of combating the increasing nursing shortage. That there is a shortage of staff nurses is the one issue unions, health service managers and the Department of Health are agreed on. It is severest in Dublin hospitals, where over 300 beds have closed.